A drama of dysfunction

An unsettling, satisfying tale

Starred Up (18)

The final image of this prison movie is one of a spinning turnstile. It might seem a rather obvious metaphor for the 'revolving door' system of incarceration but it's still impressive. What director David Mackenzie is saying is that as one inmate leaves, another takes his place. It's the kind of unending cycle we're all too familiar with in this country.
Here the setting is England. A father, Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn) and his son Eric (Jack O'Connell) are equally aggressive. Neville is a 'lifer'. Eric has just been transferred from a young offender's centre because of his violence. (Hence the film's title).
Both of them are institutionalised. Even though Eric – looking like a young Paul Gascoigne – is only 19, he's known little but life behind bars. One is reminded of Graham Greene's “In the lost childhood of Judas, Jesus was betrayed”.

He hasn't seen his father since he was five, the year he was put into care. The blow-ups we witness between them might have been acted out in the family home if Neville hadn't fallen foul of the law. Maybe prison is their home.

Betraying a temperament that looks as if it's about to erupt at any moment (and usually does), Eric seems to be making some small progress with empathetic therapist Oliver (Rupert Friend) in an Anger Management group until 'Nev' wrecks things. From here on in we're on a collision course with disaster as the prison authorities conspire with the inmates to 'deal with' the Loves. 
Mackenzie doesn't mince words in the film. In fact every second one seems to have four letters in it. It's strictly adult on every level but chiefly that of violence. It's excellently acted and directed but you'll need a sharp intake of breath before entering the cinema.
The camera follows Eric's every movement, every expression. Like Stanley Kowalski on steroids he swaggers through the prison as if he owns it. He's a dormant volcano who threatens the very tenuous stability of the (very open) institution at every turn. How long will he last before the authorities – or one of his colleagues – does him in? It's anyone's guess.
Was it Eric's dysfunctional background that caused him to be such a brute? Or would his personality have been like this anyway? We could carry on the 'nature/nurture debate till we're blue in the face. Even if we reached some conclusions on this – and I don't think we would – it wouldn't lessen the problems prison officers face on the frontline every day. Diagnoses aren't cures.
Mackenzie's final recidivist image exhibits his scepticism over the possibility of ever rehabilitating someone like Eric – or Neville. But the last scene also shows the unique bonding the pair of them have. We're never quite sure if they're going to embrace one another or fight to the death: their relationship has that throbbing tension, like a coiled spring.
If Sophocles was alive today he might well be writing scripts like this. It has an epic quality about it. We might be in contemporary Thebes where an oedipal conflict plays itself out in blood and grime, reaching a tentative kind of resolution amidst the emotional rubble.
But before we get there we have to go through a furnace. Starred Up is one of the most disturbing films I've ever seen. Approach with caution.
* * * Good